Graphic Memoir Review | Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Marbles by Ellen Forney Review Paige's pagesTITLE: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me
: Ellen Forney
: Avery
: November 6, 2012
: Adult Graphic Memoir
: 256

In this intimate and informative graphic memoir, comic artist Ellen Forney tells her story of battling bipolar disorder.  Along the way, she delves into the origins and issues of the “crazy artist” stereotype, and rewrites her own identity as a creator with mental illness.  Most of all, Marbles is for readers who want insight into the long-term challenges of living with bipolar disorder.  


An Authentic & Inspiring Mental Illness Narrative

When Ellen is first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she isn’t in any hurry to change.  While she’s well aware her episodes of mania and depression are unhealthy, she likes her identity as a “crazy artist”.  The way Ellen sees it, being bipolar is her ticket to the elite “Club Van Gogh” – along with the countless other artists who produced brilliant work while battling mental illness.  When your identity revolves around a mood disorder, “normal” sounds boring!

Is bipolor disorder a curse, a source of misery and pain?  A dangerous, often life-threatening disease?  Or an inextricable, even essential part of many creative personalities?  A source of inspirations and profound artistic work?  I suppose it’s both.  For better and worse, bipolar disorder is an important part of who I am and how I think – page 226


Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

Throughout the story, Ellen experiences alternating episodes of mania and depression, characteristic of bipolar disorder.  Along the way, she gives us insight into her years of therapy and experimenting with med cocktails in her efforts to strike a “balance”.  Over the course of this lifelong mental health journey, Ellen is forced to re-evalute her identity.  How much of her self-perception is founded on her manic episodes?  How much of herself will she lose if they cease?  A large component of this identity rewrite involves reflecting on past behaviour, and admitting to herself that at the time she had no filter or control over her actions.

The great level of detail she goes into makes it easier for readers with no prior knowledge to understand the impacts of bipolar disorder.  Ellen’s writing and her art combine to communicate her experience in ways that I found easy to empathise with.  Not only is her story educational, but also encouraging for readers on their own mental health journeys.  Her story proves that the seemingly impossible uphill battle is worth every step.


Creativity + Mental Illness = Artist?

Besides discussing the impact of bipolar disorder on her everyday life, Ellen explores the “crazy artist” stereotype.  For a while, she enjoys wearing this label herself, and how it gives her a personal connection to some of history’s most iconic creatives.  However, as she delves deeper into this stereotype, she sees just how unhealthy and unhappy its origins truly are.  She explores a long list of writers, poets, and painters notorious for producing their best work while severely mentally ill, and whose suicides have since been romanticised (think Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, or Virginia Woolf).

I found this section fascinating.  It shattered several of my assumptions about these artists, and inspired me to reflect on my own relationship with creativity – I tend to link my identity as a writer to low self-worth and mood swings (a bad habit I’m working on).  I believe this perception developed throughout my life from continually seeing art and creativity in pop culture linked with self-torturing perfectionism and depression.  While not the primary focus of Marbles, I believe this component will fascinate readers who are interested in art and creativity.


Art Style

Ellen’s art kept me engrossed even when the story lost my attention.  Graphic memoir is such a natural and effective choice for her – contrasting art styles communicate the polar opposites of Ellen’s episodes, and modulate the emotional tone to match.  Overall, I was captivated by her bold black and white art and the dynamic positioning of illustrations on the page, giving the eye so much to explore.  I enjoyed spending time looking at each page after I finished reading the text, simply to engage with the art for a moment longer.

Marbles is an engrossing read for many reasons: not only is it beautifully illustrated, but its insight into bipolar disorder and discussion of identity and creativity are educating and riveting.  I was humbled by Ellen’s honesty in revealing ugly truths in pursuit of a healthier relationship with herself.


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